When summer approaches, many of us look forward to a good juicy read to take along on vacation, but we dread being left with the literary equivalent of a hangover.
You want something that will keep you in the vacation mood while at the same time leaving you feeling that you got something worthwhile from your time.
If you aren’t sure what book deserves your special vacation attention, look no further. Here are some great reads that you’ll remember long after your vacation is over.
Snobs: A Novel by Julian Fellowes
If Snobs feels like it’s a sort of modern day Downton Abbey, that’s because it basically is, and is written by the person who brought that series to us.
Imagine you are a very slightly upper class (meaning hanging on the edge of it by her fingernails) young woman who snatches herself an aristocrat. No, we aren’t rehashing Pride and Prejudice here…in this version, you get your man at the beginning of the story. Then…and you are still your slightly above average you…you are pursued by a famous actor too.
And it’s all written in that slightly snobbish (to American eyes anyway) style and enough skill that you won’t feel queasy halfway through.
You’re welcome and enjoy.
2. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Manhattan Beach has a fascinating historical plot that so often disappoints. It’s set during World War 2, in the United States, so you get women doing jobs they aren’t allowed to do, which in this case is being a diver. The idea of diving in the 1940’s is scary for anyone, if you ask me, considering the equipment they had at the time. Then you add in a family mystery.
Luckily, Jennifer Egan is up to the task of doing it well. You will be riveted while you read, and you won’t feel like you wasted your time when you think about it after you’re done.
3. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Nope, I’m not recommending Shanghai Girls over See’s The Island of Sea Women just because I’ve already recommended a book about diving women. I was actually disappointed by Island of the Sea Women and didn’t finish it; I would have preferred a straight nonfiction book about this topic.
Lisa See’s heritage is Chinese, and I just don’t think she was able to get “inside” the Korean story as well as she is with her Chinese stories.
I have visited Shanghai, and I read both Shanghai Girls and its sequel, Dreams of Joy, while I was there. Shanghai is the “jewel city” of China, and until the second World War, was the height of culture and sophistication for both Chinese and foreigners. I actually read a lot of books set in China while I was there…I couldn’t access my bank account online from China, but it seemed I could download anything onto my Kindle…and these books really enhanced my experience and matched exactly what I was seeing.
4. The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
Nancy Mitford was one of six sisters who grew up in a down-at-the-heels aristocratic English family in in the years “between the wars”. One sister became a Duchess, another became a famous “muckracking” reporter, and another became a girlfriend of Hitler’s. Nancy wrote a series of comic novels, of which Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love are the most famous. Now, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, Americans can read as many of them as they want…or you can read books by or about the other sisters. Your choice. Take your pick from these.
5. No Stopping Us Now by Gail Collins
Historian Gail Collins has written a series of histories of American women who, for me, strike the perfect balance between meaty content and a breezy, andecdotal tone. I really had difficulty deciding which one I was going to feature, but I went with No Stopping Us Now because it addresses the power of older women and also because it’s the newest. Another way you could go is by starting with her first book, America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines then the second, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, which covers the mid 20th Century feminist movement, before reading the third, No Stopping Us Now: The Adventures of Older Women in American History, which is a history but also brings us roaring into the 21st century.
Honorable Mentions: Gone With the Wind and Forever Amber
If you haven’t read these famous sagas, now might be the time. Gone With the Wind is the better novel if you can abide the attitude toward African-Americans. For the record, Forever Amber also includes enslaved people, but it’s is easier to stomach in the 17th century than the 19th. And also it has white slavery…you draw your own conclusion. I’m not touching that one. Anyway, it’s the attitude toward sex that ticks everyone off about Forever Amber.
I personally go with the theory that Scarlett, as a character, believes what she has been told as a child (she is 16 at the beginning of the novel, about 20 when the war ends, and 28 at the end). Judging by her treatment of the convict labor force she employs, I’m pretty sure she would have turned a blind eye to the mistreatment of African American labor too, if it had made her money. And I would guess that the staff who choose to stay with her as free people do so out of a sense of pragmatism. Although I might have disliked her as a person, I am always encouraged by her determination in the face of hardship, and it’s one heck of a good story, however you look at it.
If you’ve read Gone With the Wind or want a different perspective, try one of the many prequels and spin offs.
Forever Amber is similar in many ways, but it delves you into the world of Restoration England, and era that isn’t discussed too much in U.S. history classes because the Puritans come off poorly, and you know, that would mess up one of our biggest national myths.
Forever Amber isn’t nearly as dirty as you might have heard…it’s almost prudish, in a way. It’s the cavalier attitude (the term literally came from these people) towards sex, marriage, and parenthood that offends people, and probably should.
If you want to read Forever Amber with your book club, try our guide,…and if you want a guide for Gone With the Wind, or any of the other books you see here, let us know.
Both novels are long and engaging…a perfect choices for a book club on a summer hiatus.
Don’t forget to add your favorite beach reads below!